Sunday, September 7, 2008

Land of the Real and the Unreal

The 1961 Jerry Lewis vehicle THE ERRAND BOY is set at a big-time movie studio in Hollywood. That studio in question is Paramutual Pictures, but any small child could figure out that the name is a slight play on Paramount, the studio where Jerry was working at the time. The famous Paramount lot also fills the role of playing Paramutual which allows the film to double as a nice little time-capsule of how the studio looked at the time. Not too different from now, as it turned out. Yes, it’s changed and gotten considerably bigger but some of what can be seen in the Lewis film is still very much like how it is now. The famous gate is still there, although it’s now located inside the studio proper. The configuration of some of the soundstages can still be recognizable, as well some of the buildings housing the executive offices. The film is little more than an excuse to have Jerry Lewis wreak havoc on every square inch of the studio that he can find and that’s just about all you need.

Jerry plays a low-level Paramutual employee named Morty Tashman (or, has he stammeringly puts it when asked, “Tashman. Morty Tashman. Morty S. Tashman.”) who is recruited by studio head Tom Paramutual (THE GREAT McGINTY’s Brian Donlevy) to work in the mailroom (“It doesn’t pay much.” “But at least the hours are lousy.”) so he can keep an eye on what’s happening on the lot, allowing the studio board to hopefully learn why so much money is being spent there.

And that’s about it for plot. You were expecting more than that? The rest of the film is almost entirely composed of scene after scene of Jerry getting into some kind of trouble and all the chaos that ensues. Like any Jerry film from this period some scenes work, some don’t. It’s not my favorite of the mostly plotless films he directed in this period—I think I prefer THE BELLBOY and THE PATSY to this—but there are enough laughs throughout. There’s also some extremely mawkish stuff involving some puppets that Morty Tashman pours his heart out to in multiple scenes and it’s extremely corny. At least we still get the bits involving the kids asking for jelly beans, Jerry in a crowded elevator, Renee Taylor trying to teach him how to pronounce the names of certain bigwigs, the multiple scenes involving his mailroom supervisor played by Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones in the classic STAR TREK episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”), not to mention others sprinkled throughout. Lots of familiar faces pop up throughout from Kathleen Freeman (uncharacteristically not speaking) to Sig Ruman to the cast of BONANZA, meaning that this is the second post in a row where I mention a film that includes Lorne Greene in the cast. I don’t know when that’s going to happen again.

I watched my DVD of THE ERRAND BOY the other day for purely sentimental reasons. I’ve spent the past several years working on the Paramount lot but now the job is moving elsewhere in town and I’m of course going with it so it seemed like the right time to watch it as a way to say goodbye. I’ve loved working on the lot and have always gotten a thrill at walking around that studio, thinking about all the legendary cinematic moments that have happened there. The soundstages have plaques on them listing some of the films that have shot there, but I wish there were more details. I wish I knew which soundstage they shot the party from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S or Spock’s death from WRATH OF KHAN or that great long take from the beginning of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or any random scene from DOUBLE INDEMNITY. I do know that CHEERS and FRASIER were both shot on Stage 25 and a few weeks ago I was passing it in the late afternoon when I saw the door open. I looked inside and it was totally empty. I walked in, went to the center of the large stage and stood there, trying to soak in all the history that it had been witness to. SUNSET BOULEVARD is of course another ideal film to look at which shows off the studio and that second-floor row of offices where Nancy Olson’s character works still looks pretty much the same today although when William Holden enters the studio gate we can also see how much that area has changed. And when Holden & Olson go for their late night walk around the studio, it’s impossible to tell exactly where they are. I don’t have a particularly favorite section of the lot, but I do have a soft spot for Lucy Park, a small area named for Lucille Ball which is immediately recognizable from various BRADY BUNCH appearances. I always looked forward to taking a moment to stroll through the area on my way into work in the morning, breathing in the nature before diving into the madness of the day.

In this day and age you don’t get the cowboys and showgirls and aliens milling around a studio that you’d like, but I did get the privilege of seeing Rose McGowan walking her dog, Carla Gugino in costume for a show she was starring in, Jennifer Tilly nodding a quick hello at me, Jeremy Piven shooting ENTOURAGE. When out on a lunchtime walk one day I fell into conversation with a woman dressed in a way that made me assume she was there for an audition. I glanced down at the drive on she was holding in her hand and realized it was Leilani Sarelle, Sharon Stone’s girlfriend in BASIC INSTINCT. Right then I flashed on how the Jerry Goldsmith track “Roxy Loses” had been named for he character and how she came to a bad end in that car chase with Michael Douglas. I did not tell her this. Early one evening I was walking by a building and through a window I quickly spotted Cameron Crowe involved in what looked like a very serious conversation. It was just a few weeks before the release of ELIZABETHTOWN and I suspect he knew what was coming. And since it was Paramount, home of HAPPY DAYS, it was appropriate that I once got to see Henry Winkler but, frustratingly, only from a distance.

Though the occasion is a little sad, there’s the fact that I got to spend as much time there as I did. When you come right down to it, it is just a series of buildings and stages but it’s not to think about how you’re getting to walk among the ghosts of Hollywood past. The lure that feeling has is powerful and if it catches you in the right way it just might stay with you forever.


James said...

Mr. Peel, have you seen THE LAST TYCOON and did any studio scenes from that film bear resemblance to anything you've encountered throughout your work day?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I've actually read THE LAST TYCOON but have never seen the film. I think it was released by Paramount, so maybe they shot it there. However, I could believe that a version of Hollywood set in the 30s doesn't have much to do with what goes on today. I really should see that film.

James said...

In re: to THE LAST TYCOON, I thought, perhaps, you might find some echoes of the past reflected in that film still present on the studio lot. Speaking of old Hollywood, have you ever viewed Blake Edwards' not-often-talked about film SUNSET, depicting fictional murder mystery solving by Wyatt Earp and silent cowboy star Tom Mix?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I'll have to take a look at THE LAST TYCOON one of these days. As for SUNSET, I saw it when it was first released and didn't even like it then (like everyone else) but considering my interest in Blake Edwards I may have to give it another try sometime. I don't know how much I'm looking forward to it, though.